Monday, December 22, 2008

Ah, Montana

We've arrived at our cabin in the woods in Montana for the holidays - and it's snowing like crazy (perfect) - and cold - like living inside a snow globe. The sled will be out tomorrow, then the snowshoes. In years past we've seen wolves and elk and mountain lions. In a couple of years we should be here year-round. I can't wait.

Starting in the new year I'll be trying to interview authors who are launching books, to bring attention to some great new children's lit. And I'll try and fill you in on what's happening at VCFA, too, when I'm back there for the January residency. I just got my workshop book of ten submissions, and I'm looking forward to reading them!

My novel edits are really humming! And my last packet return from Sarah was wonderful - it made me smile big time. She loves my middle grade, which I finished this semester. I'm keeping my fingers crossed on that one.

Happy Holidays to all - and I wish everyone a joyous New Year.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


And now I can announce the launch of the 2k9 website!

Here it is:

As I said, I've read a few of these ARCs and they are exceptional. More on that later!

Monday, December 8, 2008

And Now, the Good News

So the publishing industry is suffering, as we all are, from our economic crunch. But here's the good news:
children's publishing is still strong! And, frankly, the books being published are better than ever.

Two cases in point: I've been participating in the group of debut novel authors called "2k", after the original 2k7 group founded in 2007. I began with the 2k9 crowd, although my book is now slated for 2010, so I've slipped away into 2k10. But I've had the chance to read some ARCs and I am really, really impressed. I'll blog on specific titles right before they launch, but keep eyes out because there are some hot new books emerging.

And many of these same authors are part of the group called AuthorsNow! I'm one of these, too, and their website is up and running as you can check out at right.

Great books, folks, so reading is so not dead. Hooray!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Publishing Nightmare?

I have to pass this along, because I think it conveys two important messages:

1. The publishing industry is a complex machine, and we (writers and book lovers) need to understand how it works.
2. Buy books, if you want to keep books alive!

I'm buying books for everyone on my Christmas list this year, unless I'm donating to a charity in their name.

We only have recourse to the Big Box Booksellers here in our town, but that's okay. They'll order just about anything that's in print. I buy a lot of fiction, because I love the feel of a book in my hands, and because I re-read all the time. So while I love the library, I plan to buy books this holiday.

Here's the link to a great blog:

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Creative Breakthroughs

So I was working on my novel revision (the one for Puffin), and in a conversation with my agent, Alyssa, I had what my middle grade character Barty (from the other novel in progress) would call a "lightbulb moment". Yes, yes, I know all about show, don't tell, but I still hadn't managed to control my urge to talk, talk, talk. She pointed out that I tended to begin all my chapters with internal musings.

Hah! She was right. I felt stupid and elated at the same time. Now, this is something I can fix, and by doing it, I've begun discovering all the other places where my narrative tends to bog down and move too slowly.

Now, another issue altogether. I want to brag about my critique partner, Kathy Whitehead. Her new picture book from Penguin, Art From Her Heart, is getting lots of press and rave reviews. I'm so proud of her! You can find her book by checking her website from my list at right...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

National Book Awards

We all know by now that our beloved Kathi Appelt may not have won the NBA top award, but she has won our hearts! The Underneath is a masterpiece of fiction, completely transporting and compelling. I found it as rich as any fantasy - like the books that I loved as a child. Publisher's Weekly interviewer John Sellers asked about one tiny image (only one of many rich images) in the novel:

"Appelt was asked about the significance of the crescent moon on the forehead of the kitten, Puck. “I used it to endow Puck with the magic of the moon,” she said, in keeping with the magical realism in The Underneath. “I think of the moon as a kind of watcher, watching over him and his sister.” "

Kathi's is the kind of writing I aspire to. Complex, layered, nuanced, rhythmic. The Underneath will resonate for years.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Yes, I Know...

Once again, the all-consuming life has taken over. But...I submitted packet 4 today to Sarah, so I have no excuse now but to post.

SCBWI Brazos Valley held its annual conference this weekend, and we had the best faculty possible. Cynthia Leitich Smith (author most recently of the hilarious and gruesomely intriguing Tantalize) and her husband Greg were there, along with Kathi Appelt (National Book Award finalist for The Underneath) and her agent Emily Van Beek, and Kim Griswell, Editor from Highlights. All of our presenters were outstanding. It was especially exciting to have Kathi, as the NBA announcement is this Wednesday, and we are crossing fingers!

You can see photos of our event at Cynthia's blog (just ignore the awful one of me...)

I do have a piece here that will also appear in our little newsletter, but I think might be helpful at large:

At our conference this past weekend, we ended with a “first pages” analysis. Randomly chosen first pages were read aloud to the audience and panel members (our invited speakers and critiquers), and each speaker gave a flash reaction. That is, was the first page compelling enough to entice an editor to read on?

This analysis went hand-in-hand with Sherry Garland’s great presentation on “Grand Openings”, in which Sherry outlined some of the best ways to open a story.

At the end of the conference, some in the audience expressed concern that the responses to the first pages were overwhelmingly negative, to which Kim Griswell answered, “Yes, the market is tough, and what you’re hearing is that your opening must be terrific.”

I reflected later that I heard a slightly different message. I heard lots of “Yes, I would be intrigued enough to read on”. I also heard that different aspects of the openings were handled well – some had great characters, some excellent description, others intriguing plot ideas or good voice.

What does this mean for us writers? First, I think we tend to hear negative comments before we hear positives. Maybe that harks back to our childhoods, when we tended to hear “no” before “yes”! But more importantly, I think the market is tough, and it pays for all of us to recognize that the first pages of our novels or picture books need to be honed and polished.

Personally, I spend more time on my first page than I do on any other aspect of my writing. I’ve rewritten my first pages dozens of times, and shared them with my critique partners until they get a “wow”. We live in an era of snap judgements. Hooking your reader on the first page is the equivalent of grabbing the TV viewer with remote control in hand: you’ve got seconds, if you’re lucky.

I’m headed back to my work in progress, to rethink my first page. It won’t be the last time I rewrite it, but the attention I place there will be well worth the outcome – an opening that promises more great stuff to come.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Long, Long Time

No excuses. Just busy. In the middle of trying to finish up my 3rd packet for Vermont College, my editor finally sent the first revisions of Faithful. It was exciting to see them, and have this step in place, but for a while I felt pretty overwhelmed.

On my Vermont work: Sarah continues to really like my middle grade novel, so my goal is to finish it this semester. The main character is hilarious. I'm not sure where he comes from. I don't think of myself as a comic, but Barty comes from somewhere inside me, and yet he makes me laugh. I know that sounds a little weird, but it's true.

On my novel: Jen didn't have much to say past the first five chapters, and the comments she did send were to dig deeper into my character and add more of what Maggie's thinking about in the beginning. This was not too hard, since I, too, felt those chapters were racing along, and I felt they needed a bit more. That's now done, but I'm revising the entire novel once more.

Which brings me to another discovery - Darcy Pattison's Novel Metamorphosis. I highly recommend it for revision. If you have the chance to take one of her workshops, I'd jump at it.

And now I have to put on my mom hat and steer my teen son in the right direction - he's doing well, but, gosh, I'm glad I'm no longer in high school. He said yesterday that he'd just like to fall asleep and wake up at 25. Sadly, as I told him, he'd still have to go through the dreck to come out the other side.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


It's been a long time since my last post. The hurricane, and life in general, made things hectic.

The hurricane had a much greater impact than has been depicted in the media. Things around us are fine, but I hear from friends that Houston is still a mess, and of course Galveston will be a mess for a long time.

At any rate, I wanted to post on a couple of things. First, I have read a remarkable book, and want you all to know about it. It's Identical, by Ellen Hopkins. This is normally not the kind of book I would pick up, but Ellen is a Regional Advisor with SCBWI, and I had heard good things about it, so I sank my teeth into it. And her book sank its very sharp teeth into me.

Dealing with numerous difficult issues (incest, bulimia, and mental illness, to name a few), Identical nevertheless features a protagonist who is deeply engaging. The form of the book is prose-poem. I found the language hauntingly beautiful, and I was so riveted by the plight of the central character that I wanted to jump into the pages and save her.

If you are or know of a teen girl who can handle this tough but incredible read, I really recommend it.

On another front, I'm slogging away on my third Vermont College packet, and trying my own hand at edgier teen fiction. This is way outside my comfort zone, but I'm trying to dig deep. I had such an idyllic childhood. So many kids don't.

So, I think it's really important that this edgier literature is out there. Maybe it will help someone deal with a tough hand.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


The good news for our area is that we weathered the storm very well. No power outages, much-needed but not torrential rains, and even the winds were not too terrible. Our house passed the test with flying colors; just minor items blown over.

But the news is not so good in Galveston and Houston, where there is no power, windows were blown out of skyscrapers, and streets are flooded. This was a devastating storm, and in the next few days we'll see just how bad it really was.

My son and I are planning a trip to the volunteer center to see what needs to be done. We have lots of evacuees here in our hotels and shelters.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hunkering Down

We are all watching Ike with trepidation around here...I've been around and around my yard, looking for anything that might fly away, and then I think "100 mph winds? I'll be lucky if the roof doesn't fly away."

Anyway, schools are closed and we've been told to stay off the roads. I provisioned earlier so I'm just watching the weather channel and keeping fingers crossed. Needless to say, not much writing is getting done today.

Although, really - isn't that the best time to disappear into a magical world that is within your control?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Slightly Askew

I've been thinking about this topic a great deal lately, because all my friends are discussing it, so hey, here goes nothing.

To self-publish or not to self-publish?

Way back when I started writing I would have done almost anything to see my name in print. It just seemed so darned hard to get the attention of editors, agents, anyone who would even read much less accept my work. Of course, I thought what I was writing was perfect, just the thing, kids would love it, and so on. I thought I just needed to get the right person's eye and - voila! I would hit the big time.

I was wrong.

For one thing, I had the wrong goal. The goal is not to be published; the goal is to be read. To be read and loved. To be read over and over again, and on into timelessness. Sure, some people come into this world with a gift that elevates them right away to a sphere of knowledge that gives them the ability to write a winner. I'm not in that camp. I needed to learn what children will read and like. I needed to learn pacing and character and scene/sequel. So getting published before I learned those things would mean a mediocre book at best.

I have friends who are self-published - several who are really great, superb, award-winning writers - and I looked on them with envy, and not a little of the, well, why not?

I'm so glad I opted "not" and here's "why".

1. I needed to become a better writer first.
2. I needed to become a better writer first.

You get the idea. Editors were not rejecting me because they didn't get my writing; they were rejecting me because my writing wasn't good. Okay, maybe, but not good. Not salable. Not re-read a million times good. Not as good as my self-pubbed friends who are good.

So, if you are considering self-publication, which in these times is all too easy, please think again. The number of self-pubbed books that make it is miniscule. That's because the number of self-pubbed books that are any good is miniscule. That's because - most - not all - of the authors who are self-pubbed jumped the gun, and didn't learn the craft of writing first. Like me, who almost went there and is very happy she did not.

Monday, September 1, 2008

For the Ages

A thread currently under discussion on the boards at Vermont College has to do with the age of the protagonist of middle grade novels.

I have a real interest in this, since I've written a middle grade novel and most reviewers tell me they have trouble with the character's age. He acts much younger than his years, at least in the world I created. He is ADD, and kids who are ADD tend to be less mature than their peers, but that's no excuse for incorrect or age-inappropriate dialogue.

So what to do? I've done a survey of contemporary books that feature characters of the same age. Boy, do they vary! One character reads Shakespeare, another goes to boot camp, a third has dyslexia and can scarcely read anything at all. Girls tend to be more mature in general; boys tend to be more active (duh).

I'd love to hear from anyone who has thoughts on this one. So much of what kids have to read in school in middle grade/early high years is OLD - like Dickens-old - and though I love Dickens, his voice is not exactly contemporary. What is it that tweens, especially tween boys, like to read (other than the obvious fantasy/science fiction)? Who do they like as characters?

As a footnote, here in Texas, we are grateful that Gustav was not what it could have been, and we are keeping fingers crossed for our neighbors in Louisiana.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Life, The Universe, and Everything

I promise to get back to my MFA experience, but I just have to blog on this. Since it's what we all go through.

So: I'm trying to write packet 2, under a tighter deadline (September 15). This means, the revisions of the 2 picture books, plus a new short story, plus reading, plus a revision of 20 pages of my middle get the picture...

Then there's the air conditioner leak in the ceiling; the electrical problem; the plumbing problem; the raccoon that wants to destroy my garden (and ripped through every fertilizer bag in my shed when the door was left open over night)...

Then there's the new computer I needed to buy but the old one wouldn't sync so I have to take both in to the repair shop so I can have a new one with my old stuff on it...

Then there's the new school year, where I have to home school my son in science, since they won't offer what he needs this year...

And I'm waiting for my edit letter, and my publication date is now 2010 (this is fine with me, because I have so much else to do that I'd feel really overwhelmed if it came right now) and I have a second novel to write! Plus one I'd like to write...

And we really need another car, since my son is now driving...

And, well, if I went on I'd just have to rant. I told my son not too long ago that my "to do" list was now so long, it was the one thing he was sure to inherit.

Okay, enough.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Packet One!

I was so delighted with Sarah's comments on my first packet! For one thing, she is amazing. She misses nothing, and works very hard to be honest while being nice (not an easy task, believe me).

But more importantly she confirmed something I've felt in my heart for a while: I need to trust myself more. When I feel really like I love something I write, even if my critic voice is nattering at me, I need to trust the gut. Sarah really liked the two stories I feel most closely attached to - the ones that other people either don't get or don't think are publishable - because, ultimately, if they work for me, they will work for others, too. I feel so liberated by her comments.

Something else I learned: free writing is a wonderful way to start writing. Literally, "free". Free the brain, the heart, the emotions. Then what is true and right seems to emerge.

What we all have to do in life - trust ourselves! Trust our instincts! Believe!

Gosh, I sound like a cheerleader!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Creative Non-fiction

It's been almost a week, because I've been very busy finishing my first packet. I turn it in over the weekend, to arrive in Sarah's inbox on Monday morning. And every time I look at what I've done I revise! Nothing, at least in this writer's world, is ever perfect.

But I want to continue with what I learned at VCFA. The next lecture I heard was given by Shelley Tanaka. When she showed her first slide I wanted to yell. My son had devoured her book on the Titanic when he was in 3rd grade. He was totally fascinated by the ship - and her book brought it alive for him. Wow! She is truly one of my heroes, because she was a life-saver for my non-reading son.

She talked about what works and what doesn't in creative non-fiction. What doesn't is drama. Creating scenes that never existed is risky, especially if the creation is solely to raise the dramatic stakes. Because there's plenty of drama in real life, if you look for it.

And look she does. She pursues facts like a Sherlock Holmes. Sourcing is critical, as is knowing what to choose to keep in and what to leave out. What she does is create a story arc that is fixed by facts.

By the time she finished her lecture, I was ready to run to my computer and write a piece of creative non-fiction! And, if you care about such things (and you should) there is always always a market for good creative non-fiction.

Friday, August 8, 2008


One of the lectures I attended at VCFA was presented by graduating student Lisa Doan, who addressed writing humor.

I find writing humor difficult. I think it takes a special personality to create believable humor. I also think it can't be forced. Lisa pointed out that it really comes from character - and this was a true "aha!" moment for me.

She talked about the character who has a "skewed world view" - that is, a character who spends time thwarting society's expectations. The further "out" the character becomes, the more we find that character's behavior funny (think "There's Something About Mary"). Lisa said:
"To invent a skewed world view, define society's view, define the exact opposite, then back it down into something workable."

Wow. I was really taken with her ideas (and there were many more like this one). Suddenly I totally got why I find The Wednesday Wars or Holes so funny. I expected one thing, and the opposite happened. Actually, and more importantly, the characters expected one thing, and the opposite happened.

So the next time you are working on humor, think "skew".

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The "Packet"

I thought I might put in a little about the packet - the monthly homework assignment that comes from our advisors at VCFA and pushes us on.

Before we left Vermont, we each met with our semester advisors and set up the contents of the first packet. Mine's due August 18, and needs to contain: 2-3 picture book manuscripts; a 10-book annotated bibliography; 2 critical essays on subjects that pertain to my own areas of weakness or curiosity; a letter to our advisor detailed what we've been working on and how it's going.

This work is in addition to anything else I might be working on - for example, I'm working on the first draft of a new middle grade novel, and any day now I'm expected my edits on Faithful.

There are lots of folks at VCFA with full-time jobs. They walk on water, as far as I'm concerned.

The thing I love about the packet/homework is that I do like deadlines. And the knowledge that someone who cares will be reading and commenting on my work. And that all of this effort will play into everything I do work on in the future. I find picture books hard to write, so being forced to write them will tighten my other writing.

I'm so happy to be part of this program.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Emotional Response

The third lecture of that first day at VCFA, which tied everything together for me, was by Louise Hawes. She described what she calls the novel's "desire line" - the engine that drives the story, the longing for something. The desire line exactly balances the story arc in reverse, because every reader wants the protagonist's desire to be satisfied at the end of the story.

Asking "what" your character wants is the first important question any writer should ask. Asking "why" they want it is the way to get to their deepest desire.

Now, Louise gave us all something far more memorable with her lecture: she asked us to dig deep (there's that "dark room" again, that "clothesline") and speak to that person we were at that age when we were most vulnerable. Pull that child out and find his or her desire.

First, you could have heard a pin drop in the room, a full room - I'm guessing a hundred people. Then sniffs. Then some of us (yes, I'll confess, I'm one) were openly weeping.

So, once again, that's why I write and that's why I'm attending VCFA, and that's why I want to be the best writer I can: because I want to express those universal longings and dreams, those desires, that bind us together as human, as vulnerable, as unique and yet all the same - I want to express humanity.

Even if we are just a speck in the universe.

Yikes! Heavy thoughts.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

More Craft Issues

I should note that when I summarize the VCFA lectures here, I'm only giving you a taste. I was so blown away by the level of detail and amount of information delivered by the faculty and students in their 45 minutes. I can't do it justice. Come see for yourself!

I'm skipping over Lisa Doan's lecture on humor to continue with the thread that seemed to run through the day - deep digging for ideas and emotions to make your writing better.

Alan Cumyn also addressed this, in his lecture on perseverance. Gosh, that's one of my favorite words. As you've probably seen, I wouldn't be writing today if I didn't possess this trait. In this context, Alan talked about how our hopes and dreams become a part of our writing, even though they can make us vulnerable to being hurt. You know, when you have the feeling that "this is my best writing ever!" until a critique partner says "this is dreck!" .

Well, enter the "dark room" of your soul, and you'll know when your writing is good. Don't stay on the surface; let it bubble up, and when your writing truly becomes organic, it will be your best work. Believe it! Persevere!

Okay, on a personal note, my new-look website is up (not complete yet but up) and I love it. Have a look at and let me know what you think!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Home and at 'em

Okay, so I'm back and nobody here understands me. I'm not complaining, just remarking. Some of us in my VC class are talking about having been pulled into a cult-like thing there...and I'm totally with that. It's all-encompassing, this experience.

But now for some craft issues! I thought I might share a little taste of the lectures. Give you a sense of the people and ideas.

I'll just march into lecture 1, given by Sharon Darrow. It was really cool how the entire day (that was Thursday the 10th) had a thread, and that thread was: look inside, deep inside, look at what made you, how you grew up, your family, your experiences, and be really true to those experiences. Sharon called it a "clothesline". When she was little she remembered hanging out the wash, running through the clean linens, following the flapping shirts, racing out to take up the laundry before the thunderstorm. And the image is apt, because don't we all try to hide our "dirty linen"? Don't we all keep secrets, buried so deep we keep them from ourselves as well as the rest of the world?

Well, dig 'em up. That was Sharon's message - because as children's writers, we are really writing for the child we once were. I know I am. And there are some dark little things in there I need to face, and when I do, I think I'll be a better writer for it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Taking a Deep Breath

Now the work begins. The residency is over, and I'm taking a short breather before starting on my first packet.

Short is the operative word, here - my first packet is due on August 18th. And since I'm writing picture books, time will feel very compressed.

What I'd like to do in this blog now is not just fill you in on the residency experience, but also share some of the things I learned - there were many, many craft issues addressed at a very sophisticated level, and my goal is that you should hear something about them here, too.

But first, just a recap of the emotional aspects of this program. Vermont College has recently become independent from its parent Union Institute and University, and VC is seeking accreditation in its own right. This has given us all a sense of pride and ownership in a college program that is dedicated solely to the arts at the highest level of achievement. If you've thought about moving up in your craft/skill, and feel ready, I cannot recommend this program enough. It's fabulous.

And we all really bond here - there's a familiarity that grows very quickly not only among the students, but also between faculty and students. Each meal time, faculty sat down with students; they attended our parties and readings and student lectures; they laughed and cried and argued with us - we were all very much a team.

And how often in life can you sit in a room filled with amazing award-winning authors and feel a part of their world?

By last night, when we all said goodbye until January, there was a spontaneous party (of course), and there were many tears and hugs and warm partings, and a feeling of kinship that was unlike anything I've ever felt (even stronger than anything I felt in college or when I went to sea lo those many years ago). We are now part of this wonderful community of writers, who bleed and sweat writing, who love the written word with a passion usually reserved for spouses and children and grandchildren and pets.

Next time, some craft issues.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

How Time Flies

So, ordinarily the passage of 3 days between posts would be like nothing at all. But in this case, those three days were filled with more experiences than I've often had over weeks.

I'll try and fill you in over the next week or so, but here's the skinny for now: my first advisor is Sarah Ellis, a respected Canadian writer with a number of prize-winning books. More importantly for me, she is a gentle soul who is highly intelligent, widely read, and likes the kinds of books that I like. We've agreed that I'm going to stretch this first semester, and work way outside my comfort zone.

For me, that means picture books. I've never been able to master the form. I guess I just talk too much. Give too much information. I love information, love details, love expression, so the picture book (where less is more) is really tough. I think I've found my voice in MG and YA fiction. But writing is writing and I want very much to learn how to manipulate a complex idea in a small space, how to control my pacing, and how to create a story arc within the confines of 300 words.

Losing signal so I'll be back later.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Next Time the Karaoke, too!

I got it, suddenly got it. I got it while dancing around like a maniac, like a teenager, to tunes old and new, and having a wonderful time, along with everyone else. It was like the 8th grade dance where no one really dances with anyone else, no boy-girl pairings or whatnot...but here there were no wallflowers, either.

We were all accessing that part of ourselves we'd left behind, that awkward gawky kid who really wanted to dance but felt too shy or too unpopular. Everyone here has that kid self out and on their sleeve and ready to leap. All the faculty certainly do. The Stevens sisters had it in spades. Tim Wynne-Jones is a walking master, as is Kathi Appelt.

So next time I'm doing the karaoke...more about that one later.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Day 2, Day 3

So I skipped the karaoke, but I made it through the auction! Team Tim Wynne-Jones and MT Anderson (aka Tobin Anderson, aka Octavian Nothing) were hilarious, and actually sold things I thought would never sell, and the school netted a ton (no numbers here) for its scholarship fund.

And again the workshops and lectures - brilliant. For me, the highlight was Tobin Anderson's lecture. He was talking about plot, and structuring plot using the templates of Aristotle and Barthes. Now, I know the Aristotle from teaching English lit; but the Barthes was new to me and a bit abstract, but I want to know more, more, more, since I have most of my problems with plot. Sequencing and scene structure and pacing - what to keep and what to cut - I ask myself all the time. Well, certainly character defines the action. Each action must be true to the character. But also, there's the question: if you cut out this scene, does it hurt the story? Because if not, then it should leave, no matter how pretty.

And, by the way, description is usually gratuitous. My big issue.

So today, we heard the Stevens sisters, Janet and Susan, who are major PB authors. I laughed until tears streamed down my face. (There's a lot of crying at this rez. But none of it from hurt feelings.) They are a delight to watch - defining themselves as the heroes of their own life stories, reading their best work, showing how they work, playing off each other with immaculate timing and must LOVE them. I love them. And their wacky, wonderful, pun-filled books.

Okay, must eat, basic necessity. This afternoon: a special PB workshop, then a DANCE! Now that, I'll do.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Whew...the real day one...

So I still have homework to do and it's really late but what an excellent day. Three faculty lectures and one student lecture, all incredibly inspiring and informative, and one workshop.

Here's the skinny: the faculty are truly gifted with knowledge - and delivery. They are spontaneous and open and yet I could feel my brain filling with the information they delivered. In one lecture - Louise Hawes' - we all (that's, like, 60, full-grown adults) were reduced to tears. Louise had us evoke a memory from that deep place, that beginning of all story, the root of all our personal conflict - and she did it in about 5 minutes. And suddenly, since she came at the end of the day, I began to pull together the other things I'd heard and realized that all my stories are about the same thing (which I won't reveal here!)

The workshop was wonderful as well - I have a great group led by Sarah Ellis and Louise Hawes and it was gentle yet informative. We got into the groove of the discussion, and I think we all began to learn things to apply to our own writing and to be less fearful of the process.

But now dear friends I have to get to work before bedtime...and I even skipped the karaoke!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

First real day at the rez

So, technically, yesterday was day 1. But really, it all started today, with the orientation of our 27-strong class. We are the largest group of entering students in the program thus far. Yet, by lunch, I began to feel like I had made some true, lifelong friends, and there wasn't anyone I didn't like and I wanted to know every one of them better.

It was a jam-packed day, touring the campus and facilities and meeting the faculty. But the highlight was the speech by our new Vermont College president, Thomas Christopher Greene. He is both a novelist and the founder of our new, new institution, which just became an independent arts college - with the goal of becoming the premier arts college in the country. His speech was hilarious; I laughed so hard tears were streaming down my cheeks.

And the faculty? There, present, friendly, helpful, supportive - famous names, most of them, and I was trying hard at lunch not to think about the fact that I was sitting across the table from Marion Dane Bauer and Ellen Howard, and about how many books they'd authored between them, and how brilliant they are, and how nice they are, and how I'd like to work with each of them...

So tomorrow begins the real work, the lectures, the workshops, and that's where the learning curve steepens really fast.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Arrival in Vermont

So I arrived last night and settled into my room at Betsy's B&B at about 2 AM. And woke up in shock when a truck rumbled by at 8:30 in the morning. Can't so that again, or I'll miss the first lecture, which would be bad, bad.

I decided to stay in the B&B instead of the dorm this time, because I was warned about the heat, which is already oppressive, though it's supposed to break tomorrow. Betsy's is just down the hill from the campus, and someone told me that a student referred to the hill as the Grinch hill because it's so steep. Though Montpelier is not Whoville, it sure is a charming little town (the smallest? second smallest? state capitol in the nation). And Betsy does provide AC, so I can, I hope, sleep at night.

For a drift on the dorm life, check out my new friend Dawn's blog . We met with about ten other "freshmen" for lunch in town. I already feel like a part of something big and exciting, though I also feel like a squeaky little newbie.

"Hard? you have no idea." "It will be the best two years of your life." "You'll make friends here you can't imagine." "It will go by so fast, and you'll want to do it all again." "You won't sleep for two weeks, but it'll be worth it."

I will surely let you know.

One hour to meet the rest of my class at dinner!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

So While I'm Biting My Fingernails

...I'll talk about writing. And selling. Because the craft is one part, and the sales is the other, and they can be very different paths.

My critique buddies and I often discuss things other than each others' manuscripts. And one of our favorite topics is the celebrity children's book. Now, please don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of Jamie Lee Curtis, Henry Winkler, and other celebs who are really very good writers who just happen to be famous prior to writing their very good books. But we all know that there are famous folks whose books have been published for no reason other than their fame.

I'm noticing fewer of these of late. I think publishers may be finally cottoning on to something: that a good book that makes a good read is written by someone who works very hard at perfecting the craft of writing.

So, sales. Editors. They used to scare me like crazy. I'd go to conferences and watch them from afar as if they were aliens from another planet. And then I discovered - they just want great books. Great writing. Craftsmanship.

And what a great word that is - craftsmanship. Like the old days of guilds and apprentices. Where you weren't ready to practice the art of whatever until your master said so.

So I'm heading back to school - to find my master!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Only A Few Days to the "Rez"

Okay, just so it's clear, in this case "rez" is the nickname for "residency", which is the two week stint that Vermont College MFA students participate in each July and January. During that time, we listen to lectures, participate in critiques, participate in discussions, meet with advisors, and apparently sleep, occasionally.

Seriously, I'm a little nervous. This turns out to be a common feeling among the group I'm entering with. We share a discussion board and I was really heartened to see that I'm not the only one feeling a little jittery about undertaking this two-year hard-core program. I mean, I'm no spring chicken, and the idea of going back to college and starting to snore while the party is still in high gear is a little daunting. Not to mention this is a really serious program.

That was clear from the packet I got with other student work. Some is outright awesome. And everyone seems to be up there in terms of knowing their stuff. So I feel humbled, anxious, excited, and all the other stuff that goes with two weeks away from family in a super strange environment that may be stressful and sleep-deprived.

Well, I'm still working while I wait. I'm writing a new MG novel, kind of a reality-based fantasy, and I'm having the most fun, as often happens with first drafts. Gosh, that first draft just flows sometimes! Until I smack up against the brick wall of revision. But that won't happen with Ruby (the character's name) for a while. So for now, I'm just enjoying myself. And I'll tell more about Ruby and her adventures in the future.

And still gnawing my knuckles waiting for the edit letter on Faithful.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Barty and Friends

So Barty came back from Vermont yesterday!

My manuscript, along with 10 others, came back to me bound in a booklet. My job is to read the other 10 and prepare for a discussion/critique. And this is the way that we all learn: by reading other works-in-progress, and seeing what works and what doesn't, and discussing the manuscripts as a group led by one of the instructors at Vermont.

This is no different from the kind of literary analysis we all learn in high school and college, really, except that we are looking for specific things - character development, plot, description, voice - and trying to help strengthen one another's manuscripts.

In fact, literary analysis is a big part of the Vermont program. The applications requires a literary analysis essay. I found it a lot of fun to write - I looked at the middle grade book Clementine which some critics suggested was "plotless" and discussed what I viewed as the plot. I chose that topic because I thought it might help Barty! Well, if it did, it evidently wasn't enough.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to my homework.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Latest Thoughts

Now that I have this fantastic new race-car in my grip (high-speed internet, that is), I can actually think about blogging.

I'm starting the MFA program at Vermont College next month, and I'm both nervous and excited. Nervous because new things always challenge me; excited because I have definite goals in mind, as a writer and as a person.

A few weeks back, I had to send 20 pages of a manuscript that I was still working on, but had no intention of working on after sending in the 20 pages. Happily for me, I'd been struggling with a middle grade "boy" book for 6 months, and Alyssa (my agent) told me that, once again, I'd missed the mark - great voice, she said, terrific character, but poor pacing/plotting. And there you have my struggle as a writer: plotting.

So, when Kathi Appelt, whom I know here in Texas, encouraged me to apply to Vermont, I decided I needed it - I need to be guided in this plotting thing. After all, what makes a story great? What drives you on as a reader? A great plot.

(Speaking of which, I just finished Kathi's THE UNDERNEATH, and it is one of the best books I've read in years. I'd lobby for a Newbery for her, if I could.) And there's an example of master plotting technique, right there: fast paced, holds your attention, constant threat that is realistic, and true, deep emotion.

So, off Barty went to Vermont, to see what he can see!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Free at last!

Okay, this may sound dumb, but I finally have high speed internet! Which means I can actually write a blog from home! Which means maybe I'll write more often.

It's like this new freedom - being able to link to the outside world from my house.

I want to mention that I've joined a marvelous group of fellow writers, all of whom have debut novels coming out (as I do, at the moment) in 2009. The group is 2k9, and we're soon to have a website. So far what I've seen of the books looks fantastic, and I'll link to websites, etc., as soon as I can.

At least, I'm hoping my novel comes out in 2009. I'm still waiting to hear from my editor (what is called the"editorial letter"), and I hope it comes soon, so that I can polish and revise and refine and make FAITHFUL the best possible novel.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Back to person(s)

We've got some discussion about first person versus third person, which I think is interesting, so let's string it along.

So, my debut novel is YA, and when I turned it into first person, it came alive. Now, however, I'm writing a middle grade, and when I tried first person it was flat as a board. My YA protagonist is 16; my MG protagonist is about to turn 13.

Now, they are also slightly different genres - the YA is historical/mystery; the MG is contemporary/realistic fantasy. And the voices are vastly different: in the YA, as historical, my protagonist speaks with more formal dialect (she's upper class), and in the MG that contemporary voice can come across as slangy.

The other issue may be character - in the YA, I had to really dig her out. In the MG, she's more alive for me right off the bat.

I'm interested to hear what folks think!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

So, now...

So after all the edits and rewrites (and they were sometimes painful, but always necessary), Alyssa sent out the manuscript to a select group of editors.

This was my nervous time, actually. And a few of the editors rejected it right away, which, natch, was disappointing. In November, Jen Bonnell of Puffin expressed an interest, a first glimmer of hope.

It took another 5 months and another rewrite at Jen's request, but now the book is with Puffin. And brilliant Alyssa had me write the synopsis for a sequel, so the deal was for 2 books! Yeah!

Of course, I'm trying to fill my time (waiting to hear from Jen) with other work that hasn't yet come together, which is hugely frustrating. Bleeding through my pen...(or through the keyboard...)

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

One Writer's Journey

I want to finish this story, but before I do, here's a good link to know about if you are published and considering school visits: Alexis O'Neill is an accomplished writer who really knows how to handle school visits. There are good tips there!

But back to January 2007 - just so you don't think that writing is easy for me - once Alyssa signed me, it still took 6 months of back and forth edits before she felt that my manuscript was ready to send to editors. Alyssa is very hands-on (which I love) and gave me terrific advice. And, by the way, you're never too old to be told to "show, don't tell". Her best words of wisdom: make sure it's always kid-friendly.

There were times when I felt that this manuscript would never be finished, that I'd be old and gray before I got it right. I tightened and ditched and rewrote. But it was when I changed the point of view - from 3rd to 1st - that it happened. The character popped out, the story drove forward, it worked.

This is not for every manuscript, but if something isn't working, try changing POV, if only for an experiment.

Friday, April 25, 2008

How does it happen? - Part 2

So there I was, in San Antonio, at an SCBWI ( conference, trying to concentrate on the various lectures and workshops, and all the time wondering whether Alyssa would like Faithful.

I walked into the room in a state of anxiety, only to have Alyssa seem so excited to see me - her first words were (to this effect), "I love this book!"

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I spent the rest of my ten minute critique in a fog. She asked to see the entire manuscript when she took her new job as agent about 6 weeks later. Of course, the second I walked out of the room I knew I was in for a lot of work - the manuscript was far, far from finished.

But I sweated to get it whipped into shape for her. And about a week before it was "due" (which is what I like to think about my window of opportunity), I was only halfway there.

I called my writer friends - Kathy Whitehead and Shirley Hoskins, and Kathi Appelt and Debbie Leland - and the advice I got was: "send what you have. Just send what you have. Don't wait, or that window might close." So I sent half a novel.

And Alyssa loved it, and was happy to wait until January for the rest, and she signed me as a client in January of 2007.

But the story doesn't quite end there...

Friday, April 11, 2008

How does it happen?

Since it's been awhile, and since people have been asking, I'm going to review how I became a real published author.

My first book, "Get Organized Without Losing It", was the result of having a son with dyslexia and ADD. He's a great kid, but he sure couldn't keep his stuff together in elementary school. So, although I was trying to write picture books, one morning I woke up and said, "I need to write a book for Kevin."

When I looked around, I couldn't find anything on the market that addressed the issues of organization for a younger child, elementary to middle school age. I had done tons of my own research to try and help him, so I put together a book proposal and sent it to the publisher most likely to publish it, and (many months later), they bought "Get Organized". This sale was a combination of passion, timing, luck, and research. I knew the subject and I targeted the market.

But I was also writing fiction, all types of fiction. I have picture book manuscripts and novels cluttering my files. But there was one manuscript I couldn't quit working on: "Faithful".

"Faithful" is set in Yellowstone Park, an area I know well. Partly I wrote it because I find the landscape so astonishing. Partly I wrote it because my mother died. Those two elements collided in this story.

I hadn't really sent the manuscript around because I was still working on it, when, in fall 2006, I had an email about an SCBWI () conference in San Antonio. It was a last minute decision to attend. They had offered critiques, but these were all sold out.

Then, a week before the conference, I had another email: a crit slot had opened up, and was I still interested? I had to respond with 10 first pages by 6PM.

So I sent the first ten pages of "Faithful". Now, I was in the middle of another major edit; I didn't even proof the ten pages.

My critique landed with Alyssa Eisner Henkin, then an editor for Simon and Schuster. When she announced at the conference that she was leaving S&S to become an agent, I was as nervous as a cat. I really didn't expect anything to happen in my critique.

But it did - and that's the magic of luck, combined with persistence.

I'll finish this story next time.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Character Framework

Here's what readers want in their characters:
1. someone they like
2. someone with courage
3. someone they understand
4. someone who makes things happen
5. someone tenacious
6. someone passionate.
In other words, readers like to see characters who are an idealization of their own dreams. You know that moment when you walk away from a bad conversation and rethink it with great comebacks and snappy lines? Readers love to see their characters find those great comebacks and snappy lines.

But not all the time! A great character has to fail, too, and fail miserably. A great character (protagonist) needs a great obstacle (antagonist) to fight. In fact, that obstacle has to be huge - life and death.

Now, to a 10-year old, life and death may be her parents' divorce. Or it may be experiencing supreme embarrassment. A comic life and death moment is a twist on the serious - showing up at a non-costume party wearing a costume.

When we writers create characters, we have to think about them within the framework of the obstacle they face. And give them a desire so important that it motivates them to act.

So, it's character to desire to goal, all blocked by the big obstacle.

How do I, personally, tackle this?

Well, usually my stories start with an abstract idea. In other words, my plot comes first. But almost at the same time I envision the character who will deal with this idea. Often I free write a number of scenes, getting the emotional tenor and voice of the story rolling in my head before I write the story itself.

But before I write much of the story I try to get to know the character, by one or more of the techniques I've already described. This is just the "getting-to-know-you" phase of writing. It usually isn't until I've written most of a complete first draft that I feel I really know my character.

Then I'll go back and do another round of character studies! I might re-web, or interview my character, or make another scrapbook, or write a series of pages of character backstory.

This is a very organic way of working, and that's what works for me at least through the third draft. By that time, if my character isn't fully developed, the story probably isn't working, either.

And, by the way, I probably end up with between 15 and 20 drafts (or more) of a single novel/story. But more about that stage in another post.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Character building

Another exercise in creating great characters...the old webbing technique is useful. Create a web diagram that shows all the influences on your character, using categories and sub-categories.

For example, a major category may be family, and a subcategory would be grandparents; then describe who they are/were and give them hooks, handles, and descriptors. Think about your character's pets - not only the ones he or she has now, but the ones that have died or run away (always a traumatic experience for a child). Think about school experiences - they are formative. Friends and enemies, teachers, mentors, anyone who's impacted your character needs a small profile, too, especially if they are featured in your story.

A further technique is the interview. Pretend you are talking directly to your character: ask him/her a series of questions as if you were conducting a detailed interview. Follow the thread of the answers you get - you might be surprised. This is especially effective if you feel like you want to add something unexpected to your story. We all have secrets - what's your character's secret? When you find it, don't even include it in the book - it provides a richness to your character without ever being mentioned.

What's his favorite subject in school? What does she hate most in the world? What's his phobia (yes, we all have them - mine are high places and deep water).

In my next post I'll define a character framework.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

News and Characters

First, some exciting (for me) news - Alyssa has just told me that she's sold my first novel, Faithful, as part of a 2-book deal to Puffin. Needless to say, this is thrilling - the culmination of many years of effort. And hopefully only the beginning of a career that I love, love, love. You know, it's true: if you do what you love, you'll find success, because your heart will pull you through the hard times when your head yells at you to quit.

So, back to characterization. Last time I mentioned one technique - scrapbooking. There are tons of others, but one I especially like is this: envision your character's bedroom. What's on the walls? Posters of rock stars or athletes or Einstein? What does your character have on his/her bed - a spread? Stuffed animals?

And what's in your character's closet? The stuff we hide from everyone tells a lot about us: is his closet a mess or is it neat? Are there old toys in there? A hockey stick? Does she take her laundry in to be washed or does it end up in a heap? How about old papers that she doesn't want Mom to see? Or a diary?

These are the personal details that turn a character into someone recognizable. Maybe the closet door still has a height chart that your character has long outgrown. Or maybe the closet is a trunk - because you've written a novel set in 1840.

You can use the scrapbook technique on your character's room, too - create a picture with cut-outs from magazines. These physical details will start to make your character feel more real to you, and then to your reader.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Holidays, redux - yes, it's Spring!

I'm not a blogger. Certainly not the type that gets obsessive. Of course, maybe instead of blogging it's better to be writing! I'm going to try starting a new thread here: writing about writing. That's because I've just been accepted into the Vermont MFA program for writing in children's literature. This is exciting, but it's also rejuvenating - I still feel like I have so much to learn about writing. I'd like to talk about writing in its elemental forms: starting with character, then voice, plot, pacing, and any other things I can think of.

By the way, my own personal demon is plotting/pacing. This difficulty is one reason I can't wait to get to Vermont. But here, since I feel comfortable with it, I'll start with character.

One of the most valuable workshops I've ever attended was run by the late, great Paula Danziger. She talked about building character and she combined it with her personal passion: scrapbooking. She brought materials to the workshop and we all chose a character and created a scrapbook of that character's life. I have to tell you that my scrapbook, the one I made that day, was dreadful - but then I went home and spent a week creating a new one for my character. It was a blast! I had fun finding the various materials and pictures, and I made a mini-story, with old photos and stickers, and I bound it nicely - and I think it made my character come alive in a completely new way.

For one thing, I wrote the scrapbook as if it was a journal, in first person. For the first time the voice of my character came out with a vengeance. And a couple of the secondary characters, too.

I'll continue this discussion later in the week...